What you’re not being told about Live Export – Animal Welfare (Part 2/4)

Host: Dampier Downs Station
Written by Anne Marie Huey – co-Manager, Dampier Downs.

Find part 1 here.

Live export is the mainstay of the northern beef industry. For most of its history, live export barely registered on the radar of many Australians. That all changed in 2011 when footage of abhorrent animal cruelty was aired on television and the resulting campaign waged by animal rights’ activists caused the live export trade to Indonesia to be banned. It was during this time that the idea for Central Station had its genesis.

Central Station was conceived as a platform for ordinary producers like myself to be able to share a little of the reality of our lives with our urban counterparts. Over the last five years many hosts have sought to inform, educate and entertain our readership, while at the same time raising awareness of issues we face to produce the food the world needs.

Sadly, live export is now squarely back in the firing line with the death last year of 2,400 sheep en-route to the Middle East. This was an appalling occurrence and it has rightfully generated outrage world-wide. The Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources has investigated the incident and new regulations are now in place, reducing stocking densities by almost 40% at critical times of year. Tough new penalties including fines of up to $4.2M for companies an $2.1M and up to 10 years jail time for company directors who knowingly flout the regulations have been introduced.

As a producer who relies on live export to survive, I obviously have a vested interest in the continuation of the trade. I also have a view of the industry that is very different to what is portrayed by animal rights activists and a strong belief in the concept of a ‘fair go’.  Therefore, in the interest of stimulating informed debate I would like to use this week to address some of the more common myths, mistruths and misconceptions that are regularly circulated in this debate.

Firstly, I will start with arguably the most contentious of claims – that export by ship is inherently cruel and that animals are subjected to barbaric treatment when sent overseas.

The boat trade

Prior to 2010 Indonesia was a major export destination for both feedlot and slaughter cattle. That year, however, Indonesia began enforcing an existing clause that cattle had to weigh less than 350kg landed. This clause had always been in the trade agreement, however it had rarely been enforced.

This caused a lot of pain to Australian producers as overnight many had animals that were no longer acceptable for the Indonesian market (far and away our most important trading partner at the time). To make matters worse, exporters were very reluctant to accept cattle over 330kg as they knew animals gained weight between sale and delivery and they didn’t want to be caught holding a boat-load of unsaleable animals.

This is important as biology dictates that stressed, unhappy cattle don’t eat. For cattle to be gaining weight on a sea voyage they must be comfortable and content – and have access to plentiful feed and water.

The suffering of animals is never acceptable.  But neither is the tarring of an entire industry over the actions of a small minority. No-one can excuse what happened aboard the Awassi Express in 2017.  It is beyond disgraceful to think this could happen to animals under Australian control. Nevertheless, it did happen and the fall-out has been swift and severe.

However, to insinuate this incident is representative of all – or even most – export shipments is just blatantly wrong.  Unfortunately, footage showing calm, relaxed livestock does not make for attention-grabbing headlines and does not generate as many ‘clicks’ on social media sites.  For anyone who is interested, footage of sheep on subsequent live ex journeys was made available to be viewed here.

None of the major news outlets ran any stories showing this side of the trade and so the viewing public were treated to an emotive, one-sided portrayal of a complex issue.  In every subsequent news story that mentioned live export the same distressing footage was played, further reinforcing the negative stereotype and providing even less balance in an already heavily biased argument.

Just to put this in some perspective, imagine there was an animal-based industry in Australia that received over 55,000 animal cruelty complaints that resulted in almost 1,000 charges being laid in one year alone. Also imagine that the main entity charged with overseeing and inspecting this industry was responsible for killing over 20,000 animals in the same year. Taken at face value these statistics would be shocking and should generate outrage.

The organisation responsible for these statistics is the RSPCA and the animals in question are pets. Despite the damning numbers no-one is calling for an overhaul of pet ownership in Australia, or for strict laws to be introduced to minimise instances of abuse.

Animals are subject to barbaric treatment when slaughtered overseas

Of the 100+ nations that participate in live export, Australia is the only country I am aware of that tracks the welfare of animals right through to the point of slaughter.

In late 2015 a live export vessel suffered engine problems off Fremantle and was unable to embark on its planned journey to the Middle East. The media outdid themselves with headlines like “Floating ship of death” and animal rights activists went into overdrive about the cruelty of the trade and renewed calls for its end.  \The truth made for a far less dramatic story.  The sheep on board were off-loaded and eventually processed in Australia and the cattle were redirected to Vietnam. The mortality rate, after 26 days on board, was 0.06%.

Photos of the animals in the Vietnamese feedlot showed them to be relaxed and in good condition. This is a strong indication that the voyage, even with its regrettable delay, was not stressful.

However, the exporter’s responsibility for the animals’ welfare does not end once they leave the ship. Under the Export Supply Chain Assurance Scheme (ESCAS) animals can only be sold into approved feedlots and abattoirs. Many of these facilities are the equal – or better – of those found in Australia.  Conditions and treatment of animals are closely monitored and any breaches can result in businesses losing the ability to receive Australian animals, which provides a pretty good incentive for doing the right thing.

Sadly, subsequent footage from Vietnam has shown that, despite the best efforts of all involved, some animals do slip through the cracks and are subject to cruel slaughter. This is never acceptable and the exporters were quick to act. Trade to the facilities involved was suspended while a thorough investigation was undertaken.  Initiatives such as installing CCTV in abattoirs have been implemented and education about the need for improved welfare practices is ongoing.

While these reports and images are always distressing, it is important to keep some perspective.  A report released by the Australian government in 2015 found that of the of “the millions of animals exported under ESCAS there have been 22 identified incidents of non-compliance where the animal welfare outcome was either adverse of unknown”.  Of course, this is 22 incidents too many, but it is certainly not the normal, mainstream practice animal rights activists would have us believe.

In fact, one of the main reasons facilities are improving so quickly in Asia and other markets is because of the significant investment made by the Australian live export industry to improve animal handling practices.

As a nation we are exporting not only animals, but skills, knowledge, education and infrastructure that lifts the standards for animal welfare for all animals – not just those of Australian origin.

To me, the most immoral aspect of the anti-live export debate is the misguided notion that if Australia were to stop live export all the animal welfare problems would disappear.  They wouldn’t – in fact they would get a whole lot worse.

Our investment in overseas markets would cease and there is no-one waiting in the wings to replace us.  Standards would fall, progress would stall and millions of animals would suffer.  We may not hear about it on the 6 o’clock news because it would be mainly non-Australian animals that would be affected (although there would be significant animal welfare implications at home as well).  To me, this is just not acceptable, and I can’t believe anyone who professes to care about animals would think so, either.

I understand that there are many people out there who will never accept the “If we don’t someone else will” argument to support live export. However, when it comes to investing in the fate of our exported livestock, please remember this:

“If we don’t no-one else will.”